May 09, 2017

“Bill Ayers & Bernadine Dohrn: Demanding the Impossible”

Date published: 10/18/2016
Publication: Times Union

By Michael Rivest on October 18, 2016 at 3:36 PM

I once asked the great theologian and activist William Sloane Coffin if he was optimistic about the future. “No, I am hopeful,” he said, explaining that optimism and pessimism are two sides of the same determinist coin. “In a world of infinite possibility, anything can happen. So I just act, then hope.”

Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn make that identical point. They came to Albany last weekend to visit old friends and fellow Weather Underground leaders Jeff Jones and Eleanor Stein, and to appear at Troy’s Sanctuary for Independent Media. Ayers and Dohrn are both successful authors, but Bill’s Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto is the latest work and what drew the full house.

At a gathering the night before, I overheard a woman introduce herself to Dohrn, asking her personal advice as a woman. Bernadine never let go of the woman’s hand from the initial greeting. Their voices became whispers, as though a cone of confessional intimacy had suddenly dropped over them. I sensed the same focus and sensitivity in Bill. When he listens his intensity is disarming. He is entirely present to you.

To some, Ayers and Dohrn, now in their 70s, are frozen in early 1970s amber, like a pair of lava lamps. Interestingly, the Weather Underground never came up in conversation, either Friday or in Saturday’s dialogue at The Sanctuary, and not from any avoidance. They speak freely of everything, their travels, their children, and their 44-year relationship. It’s just that activism, by definition, has nothing to do with yesterday. It stops being about the past the moment it becomes the past.

“This idea that the 60s had the most important causes, the noblest ideals, the best music, is just mythology,” said Ayers, adding that today’s challenges are just as critical, and young people just as resourceful and bold, citing Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter as examples.demand-the-impossible-cover-and-flaps-preview

“If you had asked me the day before Occupy, if I thought it would be a good idea, I’d have said ‘impossible,’ but the day after it seemed inevitable.”

The book’s title comes from Che Guevara’s oxymoronic plea: “Be realistic: demand the impossible.” Properly understood, the impossible is realistic, argues Ayers, alluding to the fact that the “impossible” is often an illusion created by barriers of our own contrivance, or the limitations of our imagination which he said, recalling Dickinson, “ignites the slow fuse of possibility.”

“What if? That humble question might be the single spark that can ignite a massive prairie fire.” Each chapter of Demand the Impossible offers a “what if?” example. Take mass incarceration: The impossible? Empty all the prisons. Uh…what? That sounds like the criminal justice equivalent of the Woodstock “No rain!” chant, until we think about it.

We know, irrespective of ideology, that mass incarceration is a loser. Our incarcerated population has ballooned from 300,000 in 1982 to 2.3 million today, and they aren’t white people. The land of the free has, per capita, the greatest number of incarcerated people in the history of the human race.

Those not appalled on moral grounds should be on fiscal ones. Incarceration in New York State costs $60,000/ year/inmate. Since the biggest predictor of a youth’s involvement in the criminal justice system is to have had an incarcerated parent, and inmates have kids, the math is terrifying. How many inmates will there be in the year 2030, 8 million? 10 million?

But let’s get back to the impossibility of emptying prisons. “One of my students, as a way of explaining that I was crazy, said: ‘What about John Wayne Gacy?’ the gruesome serial killer. ‘Okay,’ I said ‘that’s one cell…and I’ll give you Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney. That’s three,’” he added jokingly, but not jokingly.

Demand the Impossible pushes for alternatives to incarceration, not in the limited way current initiatives do it, but in a radical, exhaustive expression. Demand claims there are “a thousand steps toward de-carceration,” and offers up a quick 18 to start. We needn’t be an incarcerated nation, says Ayers. Incarceration, as we know it at least, needn’t even exist. But it begins by first demanding the impossible, then working backward.

Demand applies the same imaginative, radical treatment to otherwise intractable issues like disarmament, income inequality, health care, education, and the environment.

From a distance, Ayers and Dohrn are dreamers, deluding themselves that utopia is within reach. They wouldn’t mind you thinking so. For them, it is utopia as discussed by the late Uruguayan journalist, Eduardo Galeano: “Utopia is always at the horizon. When I draw nearer by two steps, it goes back two, if I proceed three, it goes back three. So what is the point of utopia? It is good for walking.”

And for demanding the impossible.

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